Susana Guillory begins her creations by cutting the Mardi Gras costumes from a pajama pattern with material selected by her clients. Many people want solid colors while others prefer more colorful prints with designs. (Doris Maricle / American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 12:18 PMELTON — While the rest of Louisiana is letting the good times roll, Susana Guillory spends her Mardi Gras behind the scenes making the garments that have become the signature regalia of the centuries-old rural Mardi Gras of the Cajun prairie.
For the past 13 years, the Elton resident has been making the traditional Mardi Gras costumes, capuchons (cone-shaped hats) and screen masks that have become a part of the chicken chasing, hard riding, hard drinking ritual of the Courir de Mardi Gras (Running of the Mardi Gras).
Unlike the feathered, sequined attire of their Crescent City counterparts, Guillory prefers to make the traditional medieval-like costumes that are a distinctive part of ancient Mardi Gras rituals leading up to Lent.
“I enjoy it,” she said of sewing the Mardi Gras costumes. “I like designing them and coming up with new ideas.”
For Guillory, the Mardi Gras season typically begins in May or June, but the busiest time is always four or five weeks before Mardi Gras,she said.
She often finds herself working late hours and early mornings to meet the demands. Friends help out by sewing fringe on the pant legs or making the screen masks or matching capuchins for the traditional Mardi Gras costumes.
The weather has a lot to do with how busy she is.
“If its been raining and cold, most people aren’t thinking of the run, but when the weather gets better, they’re ready and they want their costumes made,” she said. “Sometimes I’m making them the night before.”
Most of the handmade costumes are made to conceal the hands and face of the reveler.
“As tradition has it, the Mardi Gras revelers don’t want anyone to know who they are,” Guillory said. “They want their hands, face and hair covered. Some don’t even speak while in costume; only sing their chants so no one knows who they are.”
Guillory’s costumes and mask are well known throughout the area appearing at Courir de Mardi Gras runs in Elton, Eunice, Basile and points in between.
The costumes have even caught the attention of Hollywood.
Guillory was recently asked by the prop designer for HBO’s new anthology drama series “True Detective” — starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson — to design traditional Mardi Gras costumes for the show. She sent four full traditional costumes and masks.
“That was really exciting,” she said.
She’s even had request from as far away as Alaska from a Basile man working on a pipeline.
Guillory has lost track of exactly how many costumes she has made over the years.
“Too many,” she laughed.
Guillory began making the costumes almost by chance.
“I was working in the fabric department at Walmart in Eunice when one of the other ladies came in saying she needed fabric to make a costume for Mardi Gras, but she was so busy,” Guillory said. “We talked about it and I told her I thought I could do it.”
She did and now more than a decade later she is still making Mardi Gras costumes for everyone from newborns to adults, male and female.
Sewing is nothing unusual for Guillory, who has been sewing since she was a young girl.
“My grandmother and I would fight over the scraps of materials,” Guillory laughed.
She used the scraps to make doll clothes for her dolls and later her first quilt top.
“I never took home economics because basically I knew how to cook and sew,” she said.
Many of Guillory’s designs come together with ideas created in her head or by looking at photographs.
“Other times someone will say ‘I want something like this,’ and I will come up with an idea how to do it,” she said.
Guillory’s creations can take several days to complete, depending on the detail.
A child’s costume can take only four or five hours, she said. An adult’s costume can take days to complete.
“The more fringe they want, the longer it takes,” she said.
Many of the costumes are made from cloth remnants sewn patchwork style to old blue jeans, pants or shirts. Others are full costumes cut from pajama patterns with strips of cloth cut into fringes and sewn on the sleeves and pant legs.
Masks are made from wire mesh similar to window screen. The masks are decorated with large protruding noses and painted on eyes and mouths or strips of fabric to help conceal the reveler’s true identity.
Her tools of the trade are simple — a sewing machine, patterns, scissors, needles and a cutting mat.
The most popular costumes are those with fringe, she said.
Guillory’s costumes can run from $50 for an adult costume to $200 or more for elaborate costumes like those made from purple Crown Royal bags.
Many people want solid fabrics while others prefer more colorful prints, with plaids, stripes and designs including horses, flowers, John Deere tractors and more.
One client wanted black and gold in honor of the Pittsburg Steelers, she said. Others want the purple, green and gold, which Guillory considers to be more of the city Mardi Gras traditions.
“A lot of people don’t know the tradition of Mardi Gras,” she said. “I’m still learning because each area has their own little traditions and way of doing things.”
Guillory remembers seeing the earlier Mardi Gras runners as a young child.
“I remember when I was little and we lived next to my grandfather who had a full farm,” she said. “I remember them coming up on horseback and asking him if they could have a chicken.”
Her grandfather would let the revelers chase a guinea or two, but most of the birds ended up on top of barn.
Guillory’s work does not stop once the madness and mayhem of Mardi Gras has passed.
“By the end of the day most of the costumes are wet, torn and muddy,” she said. “Some are rough on their costumes, but that doesn’t bother me. Some of them I have to repair … some there is no hope for and I have to make another one for next year.”
For more information on the costumes, call Susana Guillory at 337-305-3220 or on Facebook at Mardi Gras Creations by Susana.